An interview with Oregon Tilth Certification Director, Connie Karr, on how she got started, what she sees for the future of organic, and balancing work-life.
You grew up on a conventional farm, what got you interested in organic?
I remember growing up thinking about how challenging farming was — the ups and downs from year to year, the smells in the air around the house on “spray” day. As a kid, I did my chores but often thought there had to be a better way. How were farms to survive long-term, constantly borrowing from next year to pay the bills this year? How is it possible that these chemicals they were spraying on the fields were good for the land or the humans around them long term? The farming methods I knew didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
In college I was introduced to sustainable soil management and organic. I thought maybe this was a different way, and I started to learn as much as I could. There weren’t a whole lot of classes offered around organic when I was in school, so I took classes like soil and rangeland management. It all made sense to me. Take care of the soil, and the soil takes care of you! Don’t spray harmful, expensive chemicals, and you get healthier food, and may just have a better bottom line that sustains the farm long term.
How did your folk’s react?
At first I would get jokes around the holiday dinner table about being a hippie or something, I would smile and laugh and just say there are different ways to farm — I am not making any judgements on what is better way; it is just what I am passionate about. Year after year, my parents and my whole family have really opened up to it. I think that they were happy that I was concerned, and still working in agriculture. They didn’t really know too much about organic either, and so they didn’t really judge me. To this day (18 plus years later) my dad will ask, usually within the first five to10 minutes, how things are going at Tilth. “Is it still growing and getting new farms?”
My Grandpa was actually the most excited about it. I remember him talking to me one Christmas dinner about organic farming and saying, “Well I don’t know about all this organic craze, cause that is just how I have always farmed!” My grandpa was a full-time farmer in the early 1900s, he passed away this last year at the age of 98, and organic farming was just what he did, before the green revolution.
How have you seen the industry mature?
I remember when it was a big no-no to call organic an industry. It was always referred to as a “community.” I still like to refer to it as a community but know it has grown to the point that it truly is an industry. Being at the levels organics are at now, and having come from that community, makes it really extraordinary to me.
So I have been in organic since the ’90s, it has grown tremendously, and I have seen it maturing from a regional system — more localized with few processed products — to now being a governmental standard with international trade and organic products on every retail shelf. I remember you had to go to special stores to get organic food, or to the local farmers market. Now I can go into just about any grocery store and there is something organic there. That is pretty major!
From your vantage as Oregon Tilth’s certification director, what surprises you the most?
The amount of people who are seriously engaged and supportive of organic, and the amount of time and the level of passion they have for their work is really amazing. It always surprises me is the media claims about organic just being big business or that people are just doing it for money. I just don’t see that from my vantage point. What I see is people who are getting into organic for very valid reasons — maybe it is a health issue, or a desire to do something good for their community or make a great product for the world. The passion and compassion for others that this community has always amazed me, and the claims that it is anything other really surprise me. Don’t get me wrong, it is not perfect, and I am sure there are some people who do it for less valiant reasons, but I see those as few and far between. What is really amazing is when you hear their stories over the years, and how they start to open their minds and eyes to organic as a means of living their life.
In certification, what programs and services have been instituted during your tenure?
We have instituted quite a bit through development of certification programs for non-food products such as fiber and textiles (GOTS) and body-care products (NSF 305). We have also expanded internationally, developing programs for certification for some of the major international regulations in organic such as EU, Canada, and are currently working with Mexico Organic Standards.
We have also grown through development of partnerships with other agencies whose missions complements that of ours, such as Fair Trade USA, Salmon Safe and the Better Cotton Initiative. The partnerships allow us to bundle inspection and certification services, where we can, to help customers by reducing audit fatigue.
What do you see as organic’s most significant challenges?
Meeting the demand through increased supply on the farm level. Transitioning more farms into organic, and providing them with the education and support to have a successful transition. Currently the demand is high, and with a 36-month long transitional period, we need to get farms committed and supported in order to ensure that years from now the demand is met.
The other challenge I see is getting the whole community on the same page with positive messaging and no “infighting.” The negative media attention that organics gets will seriously harm the overall movement going forward. In future years if we don’t all work together to advocate for organics as a whole, we will face many challenges as a broken community and not have the impact that we could.